Zendrum Zendrum LT by Dean Roddey
There is a fairly broad gulf in the 'drum controller' space. At the low end you can try playing drums on a keyboard controller, which is not at all natural feeling, or you can purchase various types of inexpensive pad controllers, most of which are pretty limited and use physical mechanisms that will not last very long under regular use, and which are not very accurate or convenient to play. At the other end of the spectrum of virtual drumming you have electronic kits, which are obviously nice but many of us don't have the space for them. In between there's not a lot of options for high quality drum controllers.
The ZenDrum is one of the few devices targeted at that market. Though ultimately any such device is going to be one or more pressure sensitive 'pads' that send out assigned MIDI information when you tap them, it has a number of advantages over the lower end solutions, and though it is not quite as flexible as a good quality e-kit, it is substantially more cost effective and vastly more space effective. The device reviewed here is the 'LT' or LapTop variety, one of a few different models.
A Real(er) Instrument
Although it is called the 'laptop', and it can be played with it sitting in your lap, generally it is worn with a strap, with the device situated somewhere in the mid-torso area. Unlike many of the lower end square boxes with a rectangle of pads, the layout and the wearability of the ZenDrum make it much more of a real instrument. As with a guitar or bass, you can wear it and move around while you play, which greatly improves the ability to 'feel the mojo' when laying down drum parts.
Here is a video demonstrating the device, which will give you an idea of how it is played. There are various videos on Youtube of people playing ZenDrum controllers, and you can see a variety of schemes that they have come up with:
And of course you can assign each of the pads to send out whatever MIDI notes you want. It supports 16 layouts, easily switched between, so you can set up different layouts for different styles of music or different kits. Because it has a substantial number of pads, it gains the advantage over lesser controllers in that you can afford to redundantly assign the most important kit pieces to multiple pads, so that they are available in different areas of the device's surface, greatly improving the ability to achieve more realistic drumming styles.
The Crash Pad
One of the big advantages of the ZenDrum over its lesser rivals is that the pads are not simple mechanical devices, which are always going to wear out and suffer damage and have limited response sensitivity. The ZenDrum's pads are piezo electric (to my knowledge), so they rely on the phenomon where certain substances, when compressed, put out a small electrical signal that varies with the amount of compression. So the pads are very consistent feeling, not squishy or with the feeling of some sort of bits and pieces under a membrane. It's a solid surface that remains consistent across a fairly wide range of attack angles (though you can use an 'edge attack' strategy to get a different sort of velocity to response curve), and which has minimal travel in order to do its job.
Of course they are not like drum heads. They aren't stretched membranes and your fingers won't bounce off of them. So you can't do double stroke rolls in the way that you can on a real or e-drum kit, hence the reason most drum synths offer one or more snare roll or drag effects to help ameliorate this limitation. But in most every way they are superior to the pads found on lower end drum controllers.
The LT has a mixture of larger and smaller pads. You can assign them as desired but it's probably common to use the larger pads for either the the more important kit pieces, or those things that you need to be sure that you have the most latitude to get to and hit quickly and get back somewhere else, such as cymbals (aka the crash pad.)
Let Your Fingers do the Drumming
Any device that allows you to drum with your fingers will involve a certain challenge, that of controlling your desire to become the 50 Foot Drummer, and end up with every drum hit maxed out. The pads need to be sensitive enough to capture subtle dynamics at finger force. So you really need to do finger drumming, not just using the ends of your fingers in full arm swings, or even wrist swings unless you are very well controlled.
This requires the same sort of dynamics discipline that playing a guitar does, for instance. You can't smack the guitar constantly if you want good tone and control. And it is very easy to become the Angel of Drumming Death when you are getting into it, and play it too hard. You can set one of five overall velocity curves, but even the one that requires the most force (and hence sacrifices the most dynamics on the quiet end) doesn't require that much force to max it out. You can of course change the velocity curve as desired to match the particular type of song, setting it low for a jazzy ballad and high for a rock song where subtlety isn't nearly so much required.
You will find with any such device that certain types of analog kit drumming figures are just very difficult to do, because they are different instruments. But, overall, once you get used to the device, and find the layout that works best for you, or the multiple layouts that work best for given styles of playing, you can generally do what you need to do. Some very subtle ghost note snare rolling can be difficult, and of course you don't have the option of hitting the head in different places to get subtly different tones. But it's quite gratifying what you can do.
Ultimately, no physical configuration will make all the pads equally accessible under any conditions. Just as a real drummer may occasionally whack his sticks together trying to get to what he needs to get to in the time available, you will occasionally get your fingers crossed up. But, as mentioned above, the number of pads available being sufficient to map snare and kick onto pads at both sides of the device, and to map hihat tiggers in various places definitely allows you to get to what you need to get to much more easily once you are get the mapping firming in your mind (and fingers.)
The ZenDrum has plenty of configuration options. You can adjust the force to MIDI velocity curves, set minimum trigger levels (to prevent bogus notes being triggered if you brush a pad accidentally), map pads freely, and you can also include pedals into the device as well. The latest version 4 of the LT allows you to incorporate things like hihat pedal and kick drum into the ZenDrum, so that you can play it much more like a real kit, but freely mixing the triggering of the hihat and kick between feet and fingers.
On the hihat in particular a pedal is useful because, as drum software such as BFD start adding more and more articulations, even the ZenDrum can start to run short on pads. Allowing you to use one pad for a hihat trigger and the pedal for selection of articulations greatly reduces the number of pads used for good hihat variety, and makes for much more natural playing since you don't have to constantly alternate through different hihat articulation pads to get the kind of hihat variety you want (something that eats up brain cycles that would be better spent elsewhere.)
The Big Picture
After having used the LT for a couple years now, I think that it's the best option available to a home recorder like myself with limited space to work in. I've settled into a now well known mapping that works for me, though of course it's always a challenge to play complicated figures whether on a ZenDrum or a real kit. I find that the ability to use it as a worn instrument and to be able to move my butt while playing (albeit in my slighty embarrassed middle class white boy sort of way, with the curtains tightly drawn) very much contributes to my ability to swing and feel the pocket to the degree that my current drumming and timing capabilities allow. Since the drums are all important in pop music, I really wanted to reduce my limitations on that front as much as I realistically can, and I feel that the ZenDrum has allowed me to do that.
As in the example video above, I use the LT with BFD, which I think makes for an excellent combination. BFD doesn't pre-process their drums, so they are basically raw drums that you can mix to suite your needs. The combination of the two makes for a pretty powerful (though memory sucking) weapon for the weekend drumming warrior, and also in many cases for live MIDI driven percussion where you don't want to be tied down to a fixed trigger surface.